Nov 03 2010 Published by under sexism

A reader writes:

Dear FSP,

I was wondering what you think is the best way to handle/ confront "passive sexism" from an adviser or peer? In the past I have had the "opportunity" to work for an openly sexist adviser and dealing with that was of course a struggle but at least it was straight forward..."he didn't think women had a place in the lab". However, my current male adviser and all-male group are much less open with their sexism. It is just a sum of "little" things: Pay inequality, work inequality, varying expectations, favoring male students with worse records, etc ...and of course my all time favorite is secretary duty: copying, note taking, scheduling, and ordering.  Despite all of that, in 2 years I have out produced/ published most (if not all) students in our group, but it doesn't seem to matter. I have tried bringing these inequalities (especially pay) to my adviser's attention directly and indirectly, but he is always prepared to jump to the defensive.

How do you handle/fight being overlooked when work alone isn't enough? Can it be done without coming off as cold or earning a more offensive title?

First of all, I would not call that passive sexism, and I don't think some of those examples of inequality are so little, considering that some can have a major negative effect on your career. Just because an adviser doesn't say to you "You are less qualified because you are a woman" doesn't make it OK for him to pay you less, favor less qualified male students, and single you out for clerical tasks. That is quite active sexism.

On the bright side, your productivity could be valued more than you think, although it might be hard for you to tell from your adviser's behavior.

Over at the FSP blog, I wrote at some point about how my grad adviser never supported me with a grant (I was a TA the entire time) and in every way favored his male graduate students. In my last year, he told me that he was giving an RA to Unproductive Guy instead of to me because he knew that I could teach and be productive with my research, but Unproductive Guy wasn't able to do that. As a student, I felt hostile about that. As an adviser.. I can understand it better, although I'm not sure I would make the same decision.

Although it is little comfort, your adviser may give you clerical tasks because he knows they will get done and get done well. Even now, as a fairly senior professor, I get assigned to do things like this and my male colleague seldom do. Is it sexism to single me out for these tasks or is the chair just trying to get things done by giving tasks like this to someone who will get them done efficiently?

A few weeks ago, I got asked to clean out a teaching lab. The task was deemed too complex for a student because decisions would have to be made about what antiquated devices and materials to throw out and what to keep. I discovered that most of the clutter in the lab belonged to courses I have never taught, but when I brought this to the attention of the relevant faculty (all men), they refused to do anything to help clean up their mess. I am guessing they don't do much housework at their homes, but I could be wrong.

As a professor, it is of course much easier for me to say no to my department chair's requests than it is for a graduate student to refuse a task from an adviser. It might, however, be worth saying something like "Since I did that last time, perhaps one of the others could do it this time?" or "I've been doing all the ordering this term; could someone else do it next term?". Maybe you've done that already, as you say you've tried to bring these issues to your adviser's attention in various ways. If your adviser refuses reasonable requests like that, he definitely has a problem, but to be a bit optimistic, perhaps his first reaction is defensive, but maybe he will make some changes.

Are your fellow grad students aware of the situation and, if so, are they at all supportive or are they just glad that they don't get asked to do the ordering and copying.

When I was in a similar situation as a graduate student, I just did my work as best I could. I was productive, wrote papers, and my adviser respected that and wrote positive letters of recommendation for me.

So things turned out fine for me in the end, but an important question is whether there is any way to change the behavior of advisers like this so that these issues don't arise for the female students they will advise in the future. For those advisers who are apprised of their unfair advising practices and who nevertheless refuse to change, I don't think that students can do much to improve the situation; at least not without possibly harming their career prospects. These changes have to come from above, if there is any will to do so, or an adviser has to otherwise experience negative consequences of unfair advising practices (e.g., difficulty recruiting new students) and voluntarily change out of self-interest.

28 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    How would changing out of self interest actually work in practice, I don't get it. I mean, let's say a PI has trouble recruiting due to a reputation for sexism, wouldn't it take a long time to change his/her reputation? Have you seen this sort of thing happen?

  • studyzone says:

    At my grad institution, there was a serious effort to minimize/prevent workplace inequality - while the effort was originally geared toward sexual harassment (at a time when this was becoming a concern), gender/ethnic bias ended up being more of an issue. They dealt with pay inequality by mandating that all grad students be paid the same salary, regardless of their program, and that postdocs be paid strictly at NIH scale (unless they had external funding that paid more). They hired an ombudsman who provided a confidential ear for concerns from students, postdocs, staff and faculty. There was one situation involving a PI who showed blatant bias toward his male grad students/postdocs over the two female students. The ombudsman mediated a discussion between the PI and the female students, which also involved the graduate school, and helped the PI and grad students come up with a plan to deal with the situation (the specifics were kept confidential). For this writer, are there resources in her program that she could use, or people (committee members, trusted mentor) that could advocate for her for the more blatant issues, such as pay/work inequality?

  • Bashir says:

    Some sort of ombudsman would probably be the best long term solution. Though at least around my parts faculty are very very very resistant to the idea of anyone telling them to do anything with regard to how labs are run or students are paid.

  • Christine says:

    If the advisor is doing this because he appreciates that this student is highly productive, it's important for the advisor to make it clear that he appreciates the student - not just for her benefit but for her colleagues. I did a lot more things like showing prospective students around and organizing meetings than my male colleagues, and I did resent it. Had my advisor even said, "Thank you for doing XXX. I appreciate that you are always so willing to help out with these things," that would have made a big difference. Had he said it in front of the other students it would have mattered more and maybe inspired some action in them, which could make the group work better.

    I did have problems with my fellow grad students not acknowledging that I did a lot of those things. One of them once complained that it was unfair that I didn't have to give a presentation to our summer students like they all did and I had to explain that I had those students in my office asking questions for a couple hours every day for the last two weeks. My advisor could have helped with that by acknowledging my work.

  • FatBigot says:

    One additional approach would be to keep a diary of these requests. Ideally also record when anyone else actually does them. Then next time you are requested to do the photocopying you can say "I've done this ten times this month, X has done it once, I really think that Y could do with the training opportunity"

    I think that a dose of creative incompetence on anything not related to your thesis could be helpful.

    Or keep a tally of salary per publication.

  • tim says:

    i think it does not look elegant when you boast about having out-produced and out-published most (if not all) the other students in your lab. Like that would be a quality that exempts you from being treated with sexism. Furthermore, it may be implied with this boasting that a less adequate female researcher would in fact be justified in having to do all the cooking and cleaning around the lab, a statement i'm sure you wouldn't agree with.

    Furthermore, as i do not believe the statement that you are superior to all your (male) co-workers, and still have to do all the ordering and cleaning, your allegations of sexism seem a little less believable to me.

    Why do you and female professor and other men-haters keep painting the world like it's a Stallone movie. Why do you keep hammering on all these cliches. You think you are the only ones experiencing injustice? We all do, and we all know that though sexism still exists, it is now also being employed en masse by women. You explain everything though your vagina, so to speak. You would outperform the whole world if you only had a penis? Because having that little organ makes everything so easy?It's dumb, really. Sometimes, there are other reasons for your discomfort. And guess what, you are not perfect. You can also make an honest mistake. Doesn't take a man you know.

    I see many strong women in my workplace, having to deal with being treated unfairly or with their or others' insecurities. They never blame the opposite sex. It does not even occur to any of them, because there is no sexism there. They blame something, themselves, another person, or better; they find there is no one to. blame, and just deal with it like responsible adults, which is a hellufalot more than i could say for you. By putting all men in a box, you are also confining and appointing yourself to a group. And it's groups that always get discriminated. So let's have an open mind. Stop separative thinking and unite. We are all humans.

    • DC says:

      Again, defensive males refuse to see what goes on around them. This is why there have been STUDIES on the inherent (and UNCONSCIOUS, therefore of course you don't think you are participating) bias against women and minorities. Put a woman's name on the paper, and all of a sudden it does not get high marks even though the same paper with a man's name on it does. There is evidence. What kind of scientist are you to not pay attention to evidence? Instead, you appear to just want to keep the status quo because it is comfortable for you, a mental defense mechanism ... understandable, as you belong to the privileged group, but very unscientific. You may not see bias, but that does NOT mean that it does not exist. Even if a male is being discriminated against because he is male, he has a right to say something. First amendment.

      I agree that we should unite and see each other as humans, but that is impossible when people make divisive statements like yours and judge an entire group ("you explain everything though [sic] your vagina") without respect for individuals.

    • GMP says:

      @Tim, who said: i do not believe the statement that you are superior to all your (male) co-workers

      And why, pray tell, do you not believe that she is superior to all her male coworkers? Because that's just not possible, right? The most superior of any lot is certainly always a guy? How fucken enlightened. I outpublished by a factor of 2-3 all of my grad school contemporaries (all guys), all while having a kid. You bet I was superior to all of them, thankyouverymuch.

      As for the rest of Tim's vagina-hating comments, I see other commenters are competently tearing them down, so I will keep my mouth shut for now.

      • tim says:

        whether i believe it or not is irrelevant. it proves my point however that you think i don't believe it because she's a woman. That is sexism right there: you think i judge her because she's female!

        I wouldn't believe it if it were a man either. It just doesn't seem very likely to me. But again, it's irrelevant what i would believe. What relevant is that boasting about it, like you do as well, should not be part of the discussion. I never said i hated vagina's either (how the hell did you pin that on me!!)

        Buy the way, the best researchers in my lab are in fact women. Does that make me biased? And it was a woman that published a nature paper last july, so i just can't get into the fact that they can't do as well..

  • anonymous says:

    Yes, FSP, it is sexism if your dept. chair to "single you out" to do the housekeeping and administrative tasks that your male colleagues don't do.

    The difference is that if a man says "no" outright, or just does a lousy job (so that he's not asked again) that is considered ok (even expected, even making him seem More Important) but if a woman says "no" she is viewed as un-collegial. If a woman just does a lousy job of it (same as the men) she is viewed as uncooperative, and unreliable.

    The sexism in these tasks is that women can't get out of the tasks the same way men do.

    If the dept. chair treated everyone equally, he'd (I think you said it was a "he") ask men to do these tasks too, expect them to do the tasks, and hold them accountable if they didn't.

    Saying that the chair asks you do to them because he knows he can rely on you - yes, something that you should be proud of - is just letting him get away with being lazy and not expecting other people to contribute non-sciency or "lower" things to the department.

    (Maybe in your department, things all even out in ways you haven't discussed. But I don't think it's ok to let chairs get away with always asking women to do the "housekeeping" just because the women are more responsible about these things. That is, unless, the chair makes it clear that he appreciates your responsibility, and all the better if he does it in a way that others hear him say it.)

  • scott says:

    @tim: Within my own limited experience of having witnessed, paid attention to, and spoken at length about what various women in male-dominated science have had to go through while in graduate school and beyond, I am certain when I say that you have no idea of how institutionalized sexism like that described by the letter writer wears you down and disadvantages you, both in lost productivity and lukewarm reference letters that later poison your career opportunities. It's pretty clear that the letter writer is saying, "I've done well and can handle this, but it really annoys me," which is more a defensive posture than anything else and indicative of the kind of defense she probably has to play everyday at work.

    A man in a male-dominated workplace like most science and engineering groups in academia simply cannot comprehend the situation without making some serious efforts to sympathize. For example, try going to one of the "women in science" sessions at a major conference and feel what it is like to be one of the few men in the room, and then you'll start to see how isolating it can feel and what everyday must be like, especially when you get more responsibility dumped on you AND less recognition.

    The ugly truth is that thanks to tenure, academics get away with far more institutionalized sexism than would be tolerable in the modern corporate workplace. Though certainly not perfect, the HR department in male-dominated corporate environments are much more vigilant about cracking down on sexism, whereas in academia, the ombudsman is basically toothless in the face of a tenured faculty unless the sexism is really overt.

    As far as I've seen, university administrations seem to somewhat recognize this and therefore try to offer support through graduate student women groups and fellowships, which the letter writer should definitely pursue. Additionally, the writer should reach out to mentors in her department and at the school to cultivate ties that she could use for more glowing reference letters than that which her advisor will likely write. And, of course, she should get a good postdoc in a group not only with good research opportunities but ALSO with more than one woman in it. A quick and easy way to select for less sexist advisors is to find one whose group has more than one woman in it (not so easy in some fields, unfortunately).

  • Anonymous says:

    Please, Tim. Stop talking out your penis. No, wait: Just stop talking.

  • Isabel says:

    "and of course my all time favorite is secretary duty: copying, note taking, scheduling, and ordering."

    Don't do it. Just don't do that crap. What do you fear will happen if you don't?

    I am not clear why you are doing these things, but like Ann Landers always said "No one can take advantage of you with out your permission". This is the one aspect of the overall situation you can control, and I am speaking from experience.

    "How do you handle/fight being overlooked when work alone isn’t enough? Can it be done without coming off as cold or earning a more offensive title?"

    You don't have to come off as bitter or hostile or uncooperative at all. Speak up in the moment, loudly, cheerfully apologize and say you don't have time, put other people on the spot if you can, make a joke or say something flattering to soften the blow, just do whatever it takes and go back to your work and forget about it. Don't explode or call them sexists (unless in a teasing way - this actually can work) don't it and whine about it later, etc.

    Become pals with your advisor. Be cheerful. Then when you get an email request to do some scheduling or whatever, reply that you deeply regret that you don't have time and it's Joe's turn and cc Joe. Or helpfully offer another solution and then disappear for a while...Be polite (don't ignore the requests completely or do anything that can be used against you) and move on. Part of what's sexist about the situation is that they are taking advantage of YOUR passivity in the situation. Stop trying to prove yourself and hope that the situation changes itself - it won't!

    Do exactly what your colleagues are doing. If you take notes at the meeting for the group or make the copies or handle the ordering every time or make the coffee every day or whatever, busy people will want you to keep doing it and ultimately you will be less respected.

    as far as the pay issue, what do you mean he is jumping to the defensive? Do it in writing then. Here you will have to play hardball, but it is 2010 and again it sounds like you are being passive. Apologize for taking up his valuable time and state that you will go bug someone else to help you understand the confusing pay structure. etc. Be creative! Good Luck!

    • tim says:

      the problem with "not doing it" would be that she obviously wants stuff to be done, and nobody else is making the effort.

      • Isabel says:

        So Tim,

        This is a pretty strange comment.

        What do think will happen if she doesn't do it? Obviously "she" is not the only one who needs this stuff done!

        Seriously-what do you predict will happen? When the stuff doesn't get ordered, for example. I'm curious.

        Not only do women have to change when it comes to gender roles, men have to change too. Don't expect some woman to do it next time- volunteer-do your share!

        I'm dealing with a male whose "eyes glaze over" when it's time to volunteer and it's annoying. It's a temporary, high-pressure situation and a small group so we all have to chip in with these kinds of tasks. My strategy is just to volunteer him when I feel it's his turn- and he doesn't object. What can he say? Lol.

      • Rugosa says:

        Gosh, Tim, that sounds like the rationalizations I've heard from male housemates who just didn't want to take their turns doing housework: "If it's important to you, do it yourself."

  • Bagelsan says:

    Shorter tim: "Why do you stupid, lying, incompetent women always gotta bitch about this non-existent 'sexism' stuff?" :p

    On topic, though, I think that solutions like "just stop doing these chores!" or "stand up for yourself!" are a bit too simplistic. Depending on the situation the writer is in, qualities that are lauded in men (forthrightness, willingness to push back, self-confidence, etc.) can be met with a lot more distaste coming from a woman. I think that trying to stand up for yourself more (even subtly) is great -- and I would absolutely say "go for it!" if possible -- but I certainly wouldn't blame someone for not being able to do so.

    • tim says:

      lol, it looks so mean if you put it like that.. obviously, my post is met with a lot of agression, some of which is totally sexist like that retard GMP, which i find extremely funny. I would say your reaction is the most effective by far.

      Whenever I'm within possibility of conflict with a woman at work, you know, when i had just grabbed their tits or some other taboo that should well be accepted (relax i'm just kidding), I get this nauseating fear of having them file a complaint against me, or much worse: tell a co-worker about me!! I think there is a great power that women have there, and they can very effectively use it.

      If I was a woman (thank you God) and I got sexism-ed by a creep I would say: hey you fucking asshole, you're being a goddamn sexist, thats not allowed here, if you EVER think of doing it again, i will not only file a complaint against you, i will also tell your wife, and all your colleagues what a perverted sicko you are!! If a woman said that to me, i'd honestly be scared out of my mind and would treat them with silk gloves if i hadn't quit my job by then and moved to russia or vietnam or something. And my penis: it'd be just for show from then on.

  • Anonymous says:

    This situation sounds bad for the letter writer, but she's making it work. My only recommendation is to have a "chore list" as one would do with roommates to keep things equal. Every semester one grad student does the ordering, one schedules lab meetings, etc.

    However, I wonder what message her PI is passing on to his male students about how to run their labs in the future. The writer may have to graduate before this can be handled properly, but it should be brought to the attention of the PI (if he's receptive) and/or the university. Perpetuating the image of woman-as-secretary to future generations of male PIs can't be good.

  • msphd says:

    I'm surprised no one here has already suggested this, but I think the victim here should report her issues to her thesis committee. She is a grad student, after all. Graduate programs are accredited for a reason: they should lose their accreditation when they let things like this go on.

    There should be some faculty member somewhere in the department (or even in another department) who can speak to her advisor about her concerns, or at least act as a witness when she confronts the PI with her concerns. It should ideally be the program director or department chair. The primary concerns absolutely must be addressed ASAP, namely those that will impact her financially and career-wise, i.e. salary and recommendation letters.

    Whether you do the secretarial work or not is up to you. I'm frankly not surprised that FSP just did it, but I am surprised that she would recommend that young women today should do the same, or that it's different for her to say no to her chair (but she apparently still didn't?).

    This all sounds a lot like Mad Men to me. It's 2010, people. Come on. The last Anon is absolutely right: the PI is sending a message to all of his male trainees that it's fine to treat women this way.

    Same for FSP's chair.

    Why are the expectations different? Why are there no consequences whatsoever? Why are we still terrified of backlash?

    Maybe instead of just putting the PI on the defensive, an alternative approach would be to propose a kind of "chore wheel" solution, where everyone takes a turn at doing the ordering, etc. and you can sell this kind of thing as "part of your training". I've seen this approach yield wonderful changes in labs where the work was not being distributed proportionally.

    • AAA says:

      And the consequences of reporting this to her thesis committee will be good? It seems to me that she is doing very well at her job, outpublishing many of the other students, and is likely to get a good letter from her advisor. If she complains, it is a victory for her in the short term, but what kind of a letter do you think her advisor would write for her? This is what I call really bad advice.

  • Isabel says:

    That is the type of creative solution I was suggesting. I was not suggesting putting the PI on the defensive - exactly the opposite. It can be done with out ever using the word no. But I still absolutely agree that no one has to passively go along with this in 2010.

  • Prashanth says:

    I doubt if such experiences are completely attributable to sexism. I completely understand though and am sensitive to sexism in academia, and perhaps the anguish IS due to sexism, but it is a bit difficult to get that from a narrative of this sort.

    • E. Manhattan says:

      Let's see - the men are consistently treated differently from the women. And the women get asked to do traditionally female tasks which the men are not asked to do.

      How is that difficult to identify as sexism? It is behavior based on the sex of the student.

  • lauren says:

    Quote: " 'and of course my all time favorite is secretary duty: copying, note taking, scheduling, and ordering.'

    Don’t do it. Just don’t do that crap. What do you fear will happen if you don’t?"


    Watch how the men in your group get out of scheduling, note taking, and other menial tasks. "We need someone to make 1000 copies of this report!" says your supervisor. And then watch their eyes glaze over. If pushed, they might respond with a distracted, "Yes, we do need those copies right away! And we don't have a dedicated secretary! What do we do? Isn't there one at the neighboring department we can borrow?"

    And no, I disagree strongly with the idea of the one female on the team setting up a schedule of menial tasks and assigning shared duties. This still sends the strong message that this is YOUR problem, and it's up to you to solicit the help of everyone else. No, no, no.

    What's the worst thing that can happen if you just do the same as the men? Don't volunteer for menial stuff. And the next time someone asks you directly about copying, note-taking, or ordering equipment, you just shrug and say, "I'm no good with that newfangled copier" or "My handwriting is awful," or "Yeah, that ordering system is messed up." And then segue without a pause into: "But I've been meaning to talk to you about [substantive issue about research]."

    I agree, it's annoying. Right now I work in a truly collective place, where even the senior people pitch in with answering phones, making a postal run, etc. when needed, without worrying about whether it's beneath them. It's much nicer. But if been in work environments like yours before, and if you don't put a stop to it now, pretty soon they'll be asking you to whip up a batch of cookies for the next faculty meeting.

    And about being called "cold" or "a more offensive title." It's hard, but no matter how calm and non-blaming and reasonable you are, if you stick up for yourself there are going to be people who decide they don't like you anymore. They'll also bear in mind that you don't put up with crap, and they'll stay out of your way. So--bonus!

    • tim says:

      It’s hard, but no matter how calm and non-blaming and reasonable you are, if you stick up for yourself there are going to be people who decide they don’t like you anymore.

      actually; i only like people who do!

      Girls with sexist problems wikipedia has found the solution for you:

      move to Switzerland! they have three women in the three highest political positions!